Lassen Volcanic National Park, California (CNN) -- "I commend you for wanting to try the Cinder Cone trail," the park ranger said ominously at the visitor center of Lassen Volcanic National Park in Northern California.
There was something about her tone and arched eyebrow that made me take a second look at the map locating the mysterious volcano, but I was determined to climb to the top.
Minutes earlier, I had spotted the strange landmark in a movie showing off the beauty of Lassen, a natural wonderland that seems to be among one of the most low profile in the National Park System. (About 365,000 people explored the park last year -- or about a 10th of the visitors who came to Yosemite or Yellowstone.)
"There is plenty of room for folks to come and still not feel crowded," said Karen Haner, a Lassen spokeswoman.
There's majestic Lassen Peak, an active volcano that last erupted less than 100 years ago; the smelly Bumpass Hell, an area of bubbling, boiling and belching pools with an accompanying rotten egg aroma any Yellowstone fan would recognize; and miles and miles of trails through the forestland.
But I was mesmerized by the 700-foot high Cinder Cone, complete with a crater and a double rim at the summit -- oddly barren, almost extraterrestrial, looking more like it belonged on the moon than a tree-filled park.
(Less poetically, it also reminded me of a geological zit: a giant, protruding blemish on the Earth's crust. Weird, I know, but I couldn't shake the huge pimple comparison.)
The park ranger kept using the words "steep," "strenuous" and "heart-pumping" to describe the trail to the top -- a bit alarming to a city slicker, but my mind was made up.
The journey starts pleasantly enough at serene Butte Lake, with few hints of what's to come.
I got there fairly early, just before 10 a.m., and there was barely anyone around besides curious chipmunks and a few sleepy campers. The area is away from the park's main road, so it's not among the most frequently used, said Haner, the park spokeswoman.
For a mile or so, the trail weaves through a forest, which limits your view of anything out of the ordinary except the Fantastic Lava Beds, or what's left of the Cinder Cone's lava flow. U.S. Geological Survey scientists say the volcano was formed in eruptions in about 1650.
Then the trees begin to disappear and you see it: the massive, charcoal-colored Cinder Cone with a gray "ribbon" curving up its right side. This is your trail.
Coming closer, it was one of the steepest nonrocky trails I have every seen. Reaching a point just a few feet ahead looked like it would require climbing a ladder.
Taking my first steps toward the summit, it was soon clear why "heart-pumping" is a good description of the journey. You're climbing on cinder, which looks like rough, gray sand so with every step you take up, you slide back a little on the loose gravel.
"It's hard going up. It's like hiking on a beach, but once you get up there the views are worth it," Haner said.
My quads were screaming after a few minutes, and my lungs filled with oxygen to the max so I paused several times to rest.
It was wonderful just standing there on the edge of the Cinder Cone, the forest below me getting smaller, mountains standing regally in the distance and no sound at all except the wind and my heart beating.
About 30 minutes later, I was at the summit, admiring the 360-degree view of the park and walking around the windy double rim of Cinder Cone. The intense hike rewards you with a panorama that includes Prospect Peak, Lassen Peak, Snag Lake, the Fantastic Lava Beds and the colorful Painted Dunes.
You can take a walk down into the volcano's crater, but I chose just to peek inside.
After all that hard work going up, the journey down was a breeze. The same loose cinder that makes climbing so intense transforms the return trip into a quick descent. It was just about this time that other people started showing up on the trail, huffing and puffing as they made their climb, looking enviously at anyone coming down.
Close to the trailhead in the forest, a teenage boy who was just starting out his journey with a group of friends paused to ask: "Was it cool?"
Yes, I said, very cool indeed.